Nervous anticipation is settling in as England’s Lionesses prepare to face off Spain in their first-ever Women’s World Cup final.
There’s a lot riding on today – and not just because it’s the nation’s best chance of securing a World Cup trophy since 1966.
Yes, it’s about the football (God, it’s about the football). Friends who’ve historically shown little interest in the game are now shouting, swearing, cheering, and crying at the screen like seasoned, diehard fans.
But it’s also about so much more than that.
For many women watching (myself included), this is about equality. It’s about seeing women’s bodies celebrated for power, talent, and sporting achievement – not what they look like. It’s about watching the ‘little Lionesses’ kitted out in their shirts. And it’s about a bittersweet reflection on everything we missed out on and everything they stand to gain.
Metro’s own Evelyn Richards, 25, says growing up in the noughties, little girls were categorised into one of two groups: girly girls and tomboys. As a ‘naturally boisterous’ child she was shoehorned into the latter and though she ‘lived in England football kits’ at home, she didn’t feel embraced as a fan.
‘I can still recall the World Cup (the men’s one, although for some reason we don’t specify) that took place in 2004,’ she says. ‘At six years old, this was the first tournament I was old enough to fully appreciate, with the boys of my primary school obsessing over footie legends like David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerard, and Ashley Cole.
‘I was equally as obsessed, even picking Wayne Rooney as the topic of my Year 2 presentation on my role model. I know. What’s sad is that there was a whole Women’s World Cup England team full of mighty sportswomen just the year previous to have chosen from – but the underrepresentation in the media meant I chose a man with a long list of scandals including infidelity and drink-driving, instead.
‘I had a keen interest in footie, but was shunned by the boys in the playground under the general thought that ‘girls can’t play football’. And, what’s worse, is that without that female representation, I started to believe them.’
By junior school, she’d hung up her football kit, as generations of girls have done.
Despite the Lionesses’ success, 2.4 million fewer women than men enjoy sport and physical activity. This is what This Girl Can calls the Enjoyment Gap – it matters because enjoyment is one of the primary drivers of activity.
Sport England’s latest Active Lives survey found 55.2% of boys participated in football in the last week, compared to 22.0% of girls. And 43% of girls who felt they were sporty at primary school said they lost interest as teenagers.
Kelly Newton, 52, from Croydon, played in a 5-a-side tournament the Metropolitan Police hosted when she was nine years old, in a team set up by a couple of the dads.
‘To think that this was 1980 and that women were banned from playing football until 1971 (the year I was born) is unbelievable,’ she says.
She loved it, but opportunities to play as she grew older were non-existent. ‘Sadly there weren’t many girls’ teams and it all kind of fizzled out,’ she says.
More than 30 years later, it was a similar story for Lucy Alphonse, 26, from London, who played in her secondary school girls’ football team until it was unexpectedly cut when she was 14.
‘The school never explained why,’ she says. ‘We’d won a tournament for the school too, which made it even more confusing. The school didn’t seem to care about it – they had seven boys’ teams but not a single girls’ team. How is that right?
‘We weren’t offered to play football after that, not even in PE classes. I got back into football at university and around five years ago bought a Chelsea Women’s season ticket; I watch them play most weekends.’
Thankfully, times are changing. Charlotte Wilkes, 36 from Thames Ditton, Surrey, has been inspired to start playing in her thirties by her nine-year-old daughter, Willow.
‘When I had a daughter I was so excited to get her into ballet and gymnastics. Little did I know a lifetime of sideline “all-weather” weeknights and weekends loomed – and I love it!’ she says.
Willow started playing football at the age of four and has played in a boys’ team for three seasons, having only ever come across one other girl in the league.
‘Seen as one of the toughest, resilient players in the team, it’s not only given Willow the confidence that often lacks in young girls, but also taught the boys she’s played against that girls are just as good as boys both on and off the pitch,’ says mum Charlotte.
‘I honestly could not feel prouder. Seriously a true inspiration for me, and I’m 36! She’s coming up against some big strong boys and never once shies away from this challenge. The whole family are proud with my mum, Willow’s Nanny V, becoming quite a vocal sideline watcher.’
Seeing her daughter thrive in the sport, Charlotte had a ‘lightbulb moment’ and joined forces with another sideline parent to create their very own mum’s team, the TD Sirens.
‘We now have 26 full members, a waitlist of over 10, and a brilliant coach who gets that brilliant balance of accepting we aren’t going to be Lionesses but pushes us to our limits,’ she says.
‘Several members of the TD Sirens have mentioned that there just wasn’t an option to play football when they were younger, grassroots or otherwise. Others love the community feel, many of us wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise.’
For Willow, the Lionesses represent a pathway to an exciting potential career. ‘Hopefully as a player but with more female refs, medical staff, managers, and trainers visible, there are endless opportunities to explore,’ says Charlotte.
The players are role models for fans off the pitch, too, with mum Becky Atwood, 39, from the outskirts of Southampton, travelling to watch matches with her eight-year-old daughter, Olivia.
‘Seeing male pros play week in and week out is really enjoyable, but I’ve never been more inspired than by watching the Lionesses over the last few years,’ she says.
‘The way they conduct themselves on and off the pitch is brilliant – they are themselves and they are proud of it (the fact that Ella Toone gets her eyelashes done before a tournament and is not ashamed of it is bloody brilliant).
‘The way they work together and support each other is fantastic and they speak so openly about the struggles they’ve endured. Mary Earps’ comments when she won goalkeeper of the year were inspiring (why Nike won’t sell her goalie top is baffling!) as was hearing former player Jill Scott speak about the experiences she had becoming a player.
‘Physically, they are also really inspiring – there are many shapes and sizes in that team, which represent a lot of us, proving you don’t have to be slight and slender to be fit! The strength, speed, and fitness levels they show when playing inspire me to train better.’
While there are still no openly gay male footballers in the Premier League, England’s Lionesses past and present have included LGBTQ+ players, with four out and proud players in Sarina Wiegman’s World Cup squad.
‘To me, the Lionesses represent perseverance, resilience, and acceptance,’ says Lucy. ‘I’m part of the queer community myself so it’s great to see such strong LGBTQ+ representation on the pitch.’
But as Becky points out, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
‘The governing bodies should be doing more to support more girls of colour into the England set up and to access football where they live,’ she says. ‘There is a lack of diversity which shouldn’t be ignored. And more support is needed to get eyeballs in front of the Women’s Super League.’
Still, with record numbers tuning in to watch the Lionesses’ Euros triumph last year, and a quarter of the world’s population forecasted to watch Sunday’s World Cup Final, we’re surely gaining momentum.
The official Nike X England Lioness shirts have been flying off shelves all week, and that alone is a victory for some.
‘There’s still a long way to go in terms of giving rightful attention to women’s football, with Bend It Like Beckham being the same age as some of this year’s Lionesses,’ says Evelyn.
‘But the thought of all the little girls out there begging their parents for football kits like Millie Bright and Lauren James makes my inner child feel like part of a team, finally.’
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